Field Note 2: archive-ability at ArtSpots
February 29, 2012
Is ArtSpots really an archive? Wasn’t it configured this way from the very beginning?
Ten years of production and four more of broken links, what is the still-existing potential for re-thinking ArtSpots material and practices emerging from re-looking and re-using archival field footage and edited items? Does re-looking establish a limit or provoke potential new ways of looking at traces of what used to be there, in the same way as directions might be given to “turn left where the gas station used to be”?
At the moment, I’m immersed in interviews and a pilot discussion group with a few of the creative participants in the ArtSpots project. These include: former producer/directors and web developers; a resources manager; artists and Advisory Group members; and oh yes, myself. It’s an interesting process which is starting to pinpoint the shape of the ArtSpots contribution. It’s also clearly articulating ArtSpots’ existence as an archive, though an archive without much accessible (as in materially present) visual /video content. I’ve been talking this over with my friend and colleague, Mél Hogan, whose doctoral work on archives (2012), particularly archives involving artist media production in Canada, has been provocative and productive for me.
Recently, I was thinking about how ArtSpots was always already an archive from its very first days. The continuous feeding and renewal of the website during its “active” ten- year period was stabilized by simple and aesthetically pleasing templates onto which videos in various formats (primarily Quicktime and Flash) were inserted in a visually similar manner. As web developer Jere Brooks (now an emerging fashion designer) and I discussed just days ago, not only were thousands of web pages built from these templates, they are still maintained on the CBC servers. However, after twelve years of updating video formats for television use, including ‘packaging’ elements such as the CBC and ArtSpots wordmarks and constant refreshing of incoming content, the website links to almost all the videos are now broken. Several iterations of the master sets of edited videos (often featuring different packaging or no packaging) remain on tape in the program libraries at CBC Halifax and CBC Toronto, but now almost none work on the website. Is this an inversion or a reinforcement of the paradox of the enduring nature of the emphemeral Wendy Chun suggests (2008) concerning the online archive?
What is the archive in this context anyhow? There is a formal, material, and comprehensive archive of edited videos, field footage and corollary production files held at CBC Halifax. I recently signed a letter of understanding with CBC Archives providing access to this content for this research project and am looking forward to my first visit in a few weeks. Many of the videos produced by ArtSpots continue to exist in various formats both inside and outside CBC, including the 1,200 short items and several long-form documentaries created between 1998-2008. For example, you can see the craft-based documentary found in segments on the website (still playable last time I looked).
Some evergreen-archival content can be found on other websites, such as YouTube or artists’ websites, where they reflect the promotional nature of the project. Each of the artists received a VHS or DVD copy of their own edited material, for which permission was granted by CBC to use the work for promotional, non-profit, and educational purposes.
Each of the producers involved in creating the work were also provided with waivers allowing for similar uses of the material. The documentation for the work produced – or its provenance, if we want to borrow a term more readily used in the arts and auctions worlds – is included in the formal ArtSpots archive as well as in the business affairs records of the CBC. But the contracts and memos cannot speak directly to what Ann Cvetkovich describes as the archives of feelings that are developed concurrently with material archives, including personal as well as organizational archives (2002). What kinds of archives of feelings were developed at ArtSpots, if any? How did that impact those involved? How was the tenor and subject-matter of the discourse about the arts shifted, if it was, as a result of the work done, or the networks built?
Many of the individuals or organizations involved in the long-form documentaries (including the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canada Council for the Arts, National Parks of Canada, and the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation) have DVDs or Beta tapes of the programs and relevant offline portions of the website. They also still employ individuals who were touched in some way by the connections enabled during this decade.
Several galleries, curators, artist co-operatives, and educational institutions retain copies of various compilations in a range of formats. During the construction of the formal CBC ArtSpots archive in 2008, two offline hard drives were created. These contained all the newly revamped and redigitized videos prepared in 2007-08 for an anticipated migration to a database structure, as well as a full copy of the then-existing website.
One particular piece of the ArtSpots archive exists in multiple versions on the Internet Wayback Machine (thanks, Mél, for all your incredible work on IWM!): last time I checked, more than 50 “moments” or iterations of html-coded pages and elements of the website were listed, though the links to videos don’t function here either. Even with the considerable investment made to “save” the world wide web that the IWM represents, there is no way of “recovering” even the web-based Artspots experience.
Finally, I myself have several boxes of personal archives from the ArtSpots period: notebooks, files, DVDs, buttons, books, etc, as well as my memories and the discussions currently underway. Oh, and more than ten years of intensive work experience on it too.
All told, this complex layering of simultaneously archival and currently- (if rarely-) used materials in various formats and iterations doesn’t replicate the activation of the network of creative workers or the public service mandate of the production. Even the evergreen website seems to have practically vaporized – or to be more about absence than presence; acting only as a shell or skin left behind by the animal that has moved on to another life stage, since the actual video (‘content’) can no longer be accessed online or otherwise by more than a few select individuals. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to look at the equivalent of negative space in an image in order to understand what is going on in the image itself.
However, some of the videos themselves are still periodically aired on CBC, and the conversations do still happen around matters related to ArtSpots and the arts discourse that flowed around it during that decade. Is this elusive but nonetheless fully present quality of the documentary and internet archive a wildly productive quality, as Pamela Wilson might suggest (2009)? Or does the ongoing, suggestive tension between the materiality and immateriality of such media production and its ephemera suggest the kind of staying-power of media forms examined by Lisa Gitelman (2008) or analyses assembled by Wendy Chun & Thomas Keenan (2006).
The trajectory of thought that compares the simultaneous existence of an archive and an active media project could generate a more nuanced understanding of the already-archiving momentum of the creative collaborative practices in the ArtSpots project. Presumably, this could be accelerated or made more evident by somehow (re)activating elements of that project, perhaps through a new documentary, blog, aggregation, curation. This is some of the work involved in what I’m doing in my research. Though the question arises: what to reactivate, and how? Kim Sawchuk (2007) points out that the work of media theorist Harold Innes provides a number of cautionary signposts when considering what is already in an archive, where it’s located, how it’s accessed and understood (etc). ArtSpots may be particularly suited to its own (archival) sustainability through multiple ongoing or new re-uses of this Canadian public broadcasting content in the arts, on television or on the internet. In which case, the public service mandate or the discourse around the arts that was embedded in the content or the processes used may have the potential to be re-thought, re-newed, re-worked. Or maybe it will just replicate what it has already done.
Such a reactivation already exists, in a way. The present-day internet content related to ArtSpots material seems to be more fully expressed through the persistence of visual content in repositories of ArtSpots partnership projects, rather than through the ArtSpots website itself, or even the infrequency of airplay on the main CBC Television channel or its other channels.
There are several partnership projects undertaken by ArtSpots with CBC’s Digital Archives that still exist. The Digital Archives is a website built to showcase film, video and audio recordings from the CBC Archives. See, for example, the ArtSpots 1960s project (above) compared to CBC Digital Archives’ (see below).
Such partnership projects continue to “air” ArtSpots material long after they are no longer regularly circulated on the television and internet platforms which were their original homes, even while they may reconfigure the production of meaning for and with the audiences. Take a look at the positioning of fine craft (as a professional visual art practice) in the ArtSpots web feature about the Year of Craft (2007) compared to the lifestyle/pastimes positioning of the folksy craft features on CBC’s Digital Archives.
Is this more simply about the nostalgic quality of the archive? I am going to have to think about that some more.
This flexibility or ambiguity of the internet archive, including the way in which content or data manoeuvre, is also reflected in how value and feeling are generated in the digital environment. In cases like ArtSpots, where there are a large number of individuals deeply involved (1,500 professionals in the field), there could be a more significant or impactful sharing of the archive experience than the mere materiality of the media traces it leaves behind on servers, websites and airwaves: through the residue of mentorships, collaborations, creative interventions, and partnership agreements. In these cases, relying on memory to reflect back on and document the archive becomes an important affective – or “felt” – layer of the research process. It is possible to capture some of this through the use of interviews, discussion groups, and other prompts for memory work, oral histories and the like. It’s been done, for example, in grounded theory and memory work (Onyx and Small, 2001). This kind of research is even better-documented particularly in relation to television and popular culture audiences (see, for example, Hermes, 2005; Miller, 1998 & 2007), both of which also deal with the concept of “cultural citizenship”. More on that later.
Huh. Thinking about the idea of working over the archives of feeling is already turning out to be helpful in organizing my reflections on my own ArtSpots experiences as well as those generated during ArtSpots research interviews to date and the pilot discussion group.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. 2008. The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory. Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn): 148–171. The University of Chicago.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, and Thomas W. Keenan, eds. 2006. New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader. New York: Routledge.
Cvetkovich, Ann. 2002. “In the Archives of Lesbian Feeling: Documentary and Popular Culture,” Camera Obscura 49 Vol. 17.1: 107- 147.
Gitelman, Lisa. 2008. Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Hogan, Mél. 2012. Doctoral dissertation (title tbc). Montreal: Concordia University (forthcoming.
Miller, Toby. 2007. Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitanism, Consumerism, and Television in a Neoliberal Age. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Miller, Toby. 1998. Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Onyx, Jenny and Jennie Small. 2001. “Memory-Work: The Method.” Qualitative Inquiry Vol. 7.6: 773-786.
Sawchuk, Kim. 2007. Materiality, Memory Machines and the Archive as Media. In Essays: Archives as Medium. Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/innis-mcluhan/030003-4050-e.html
Wilson, Pamela. 2009. “Stalking the Wild Evidence: Capturing Media History Through Elusive and Ephemeral Archives.” Convergence Media History. Eds. Janet Staiger and Sabine Hake. New York: Routledge. 183-191.
(c) M.E. Luka 2012